At 13 miles long and 3 miles across, Rend Lake in southern Illinois is the third largest body of water in the state, bounded by native prairie and old growth hardwood forest to the south and east, and younger mixed pine forest to the west and to the north in Wayne Fitzgerrell State Park. Accordingly, it is home to countless native bird species, and it hosts countless more migratory bird species annually, making it an absolute paradise for a birder looking to fill out their life list. This writeup is meant to serve as a non-comprehensive guide to the best spots to sight each species that inhabits or visits the lake; as my own life list grows from frequent visits to the lake, I will add to this writeup. If you should choose to visit, be aware that the unmarked statutory speed limit for driving on the bridges and the dam is 40 miles per hour, and that this speed should not be exceeded in Wayne Fitzgerrell State Park between the connecting bridges, which is thoroughly and dangerously infested with white-tailed deer, who have no qualms at all about crossing the road in entire herds at all hours. Additionally, parking on the bridge is not legal, but walking or cycling on the generous shoulder of the bridge is common practice for locals.


  • Great Blue Heron, Ardea herodias - Ubiquitous all year, wading in the west shallows and standing on the spillway to the south to catch fish, or flying low across the bridge, just above the height of passing cars, fit to give you a heart attack if you don't see them coming a long way off (as happens often at night, for the bridge has no street lights). Majestic, gorgeous, and populous.
  • Herring Gull, Larus argentatus - You're actually more likely to see these fellows in the parking lot of local shopping centres, than on the lake proper, but the lake always has a few dozen in easy view during the daytime, sunning themselves on the concrete barriers extending out from the dam. The only gull that consistently hangs out on the dam during winter.
  • Lesser Black-backed Gull, Larus fuscus - Scarce compared to other gulls listed here, usually seen in the smaller inlets along the northeast wing of the lake, where it crosses over Illinois Route 57, the major north-south interstate highway of this area.
  • Killdeer, Charadrius vociferous - Seen on both Sandusky beaches and in the prairie field southwest of the dam, year-round. The characteristic "limp" will only be observable when tending to a clutch of eggs, though, so if you want to view that, you'll need to wait for breeding season.
  • Red-tailed Hawk, Buteo jamaicensis - Ubiquitous all year soaring over the prairie field to the southwest of the dam.
  • American Kestrel, Falco sparverius - Ubiquitous all year hovering over the prairie field or perching on electrical lines near that field.
  • Turkey Vulture, Cathartes aura - Ubiquitous above the prairie, roads, and old growth forest, performing aerobatic dynamic soaring on warm days. Highly recognisable at distance by their extremely large size and distinctive V-shaped wing posture in flight.
  • Northern Harrier, Circus hudsonius - Year-round able to be seen flying less than a meter above the ground of the prairie field to the southwest of the dam. Usually no more than four individual adult harriers are observed to occupy this territory at a time, compared to red-tails and kestrels, who are numerous and highly tolerant of each other's territorial overlap.
  • Red-Winged Blackbird, Agelaius phoeniceus - Visible and loudly audible on the reeds and rushes growing up from the rocks of the bridge and dam retaining walls.
  • Common Raven, Corvus corax - Mostly seen on the access roads leading to and from the lake, picking meat off roadkilled deer, but sometimes an enterprising raccoon will die in a similar manner on the bridge during an attempt at fishing, and the resulting carrion will attract ravens to the bridge shoulder.
  • American Crow, Corvus brachyrhynchos - Frequently seen in aerobatic and playful flight on and around the bridge, harassing other birds.
  • Barn Swallow, Hirundo rustica - Performing spectacular swooping flights to catch insects attracted to the bridge by car headlights during twilight hours, these splendid blue birds will just avoid allowing themselves to be hit by passing cars. Their numbers tend to be extremely large (easily sixty visible at a time, as a conservative count) and their flight patterns dense during these displays.
Migration Seasons
  • Osprey, Pandion haliaetus - Usually seen perching on electrical poles on the north side of the bridge during migration and breeding season.
  • Bald Eagle, Haliaeetus leucocephalus - Nonbreeding adults perch on electrical poles, perform dynamic soaring over the lake, and even in winter are sometimes seen standing on large ice floes. Their presence is intermittent throughout the year, and it is atypical to spot a baldie at the lake two weeks in a row.
  • Great Egret, Ardea alba - Breeding season only, usually visible from a long distance in their rookeries on the northwest reach of the north bridge, where they speckle the trees on the shoreline like big white Christmas tree ornaments.
  • Ring-billed Gull, Larus delawarensis - Another frequent visitor of Wal-Mart parking lots, seen around the dam during migration but not during winter.
  • Franklin’s Gull, Leucophaeus pipixcan - NOT a Laughing Gull! Laughing Gulls frequent Lake Michigan but are not found this far south in the state. Franklin's Gull has a distinctive and highly visible black head. During migration season they congregate on the south side of the north bridge preferentially, where the water is less choppy on windy days than on the north side of it.
  • Common Tern, Sterna hirundo - Endangered, not common at all, seen only during migration and in small numbers, usually skimming the lake surface for a fish or drink of water, on the north side of the bridge.
  • Forster’s Tern, Sterna forsteri - Easily mistaken for the Common Tern at a distance, but strongly prefers only the sheltered inlets and bays of the lake's "wings" to the north. The juveniles can help you identify them, because instead of the adult's black cap, they have a white head with a large black eyepatch, highly visible at distance.
  • Caspian Tern, Hydroprogne caspia - Easily mistaken for the Common Tern at a distance, but also easily distinguished by its behaviour: the Caspian Tern does plunging dives into the water from significant height, rather than skimming the surface, when fishing. They are also noticeably larger than all other terns listed here.
  • Black Tern, Chlidonias niger - Look to the cypress "mangroves" on the western wing of the lake; these terns skim rather than diving into the water, and they prefer the dense cover of the deeper marsh, not the wide open areas of the lake.
  • Spotted Sandpiper, Actitis macularius - South Sandusky Beach is your best place to look for these fellows during late spring and throughout the summer.
  • Tree Swallow, Tachycineta bicolor - Seen mainly in the height of summer, in all the same places barn swallows are seen, but with a preference for the south terrestrial side of the dam, over the north water side.
  • Bank Swallow, Riparia riparia - Distinguishable from other Swallows by being noticeably smaller, to the point of being mistaken easily for Swifts, these are mainly seen on the north water side of the bridge, during the same season as Tree Swallows, though Bank Swallows remain in the area up to a month longer before heading farther south to warmer climes.
  • Cliff Swallow, Hirundo pyrrhonota - Distinguishable from Barn Swallows by the lack of a forked tail, but seen in the same locations and in similar numbers, though only in high summer.
  • Great White Pelican, Pelecanus onocrotalus - Consistently prefers the south (calmer water) side of the north bridge, and stays well clear of the bridge itself. Able to be sighted even into late autumn, before moving farther south.
  • Double-Crested Cormorant, Nannopterum auritum - Seen to the north of both the dam and the north bridge, usually fishing or floating on the water surrounded by ducks or coots. Prone to following fishing boats around. Spring and summer only.
  • Canada Goose, Branta canadensis - Mainly spotted on North Sandusky Beach during migrations, in the grass.
  • Trumpeter Swan, Cygnus buccinator, - Favours southern Illinois as its primary overwintering territory, and can be seen in numbers over a dozen on the south calm side of the north bridge.

Around forty species of ducks, coots, widgeons, scaups, mergansers, loons, and grebes spend a week or two on the lake during migration, and around twenty-four of those spend most of the year here. In the interest of this writeup not growing to a prohibitive length, I will stop here and simply say that there are new ducks on the lake every single week between February and December, and they consistently are to be found on the north water side of the dam, at the western end of the lake, and they avoid the spillway and north bridge like the plague.

Happy birding, and remember to wear UV-protective eyewear and high-visibility clothing when birding near water and roads!

Iron Noder 2022, 11/30